Richard Rodney Bennett @ 70

Five Country Dances [Selection; world premiere of orchestral version]
Concerto for Stan Getz
Gormenghast – Suite [arr. John Wilson]
Far From the Madding Crowd – Suite
Yanks – Love Theme [arr. John Wilson]
Murder on the Orient Express – Suite

Andy Scott (tenor saxophone)

Richard Rodney Bennett (piano)

BBC Concert Orchestra
John Wilson

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 2 March, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

A well-deserved month of 70th-birthday celebrations for Richard Rodney Bennett got underway with a programme designed to showcase his output both for the concert hall and the big screen.

The suspicion on this occasion was that the film scores were the big draw for the audience, as after all they contained his best known work in “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Far from the Madding Crowd”. The more ‘serious’ music, however, proved its worth with the lively opening Partita. John Wilson conducted this bright, summery piece with affection and enthusiasm – as he did all night for Bennett’s music – yet the feeling persisted that the outer movements could have done with more zip, more vitality.

That came in the shape of the Concerto for Stan Getz, introduced by Bennett in conversation with the night’s BBC Radio 3 presenter Sarah Walker. Andy Scott provided some florid improvisation for the piece, while Wilson pressed on with the work’s central ‘Elegy’, the strings’ downward sweep a strong motivic feature, but the freer passages began to take over, a nicely warm sound on the part of the soloist mostly complemented by Bennett’s fulsome but rarely thick string textures. Timpanist Stephen Webberley deserved his ovation for keeping in with the strings and saxophone, despite a placing that, by necessity, left him marooned in a back corner of the stage.

By this time the only blot on the landscape was Radio 3’s curious placement of a lectern for Sarah Walker, who faced frequent challenges of introducing the music and then getting back to her seat without making a sound. This she mostly did, although confusion reigned when the audience applauded the first movement of the Partita and Walker, thinking the piece had finished, arrived at the lectern but was quickly averted by a crackle over the headphones, audible to everyone in the hall.

A premiere of sorts was included in Bennett’s two orchestrated Country Dances, the first a dreamy reverie but the second, again, requiring more vim and vigour. Contrast that with the swirling textures of a suite from “Gormenghast”, a charismatic film score with orchestration beefed up by brass and wind. The reinforced sections gave a piercing declamation to ‘Celebration’, while in the ‘Farewell’ they took on a distinctly Waltonian feel, the strings securing a nice fade at the end.

Wilson had the measure of Bennett’s film music, and sought a relatively safe middle ground for the love theme from “Yanks”, tender yet not yielding to the temptation to over-project.

By this time the composer himself had sneaked to the piano at the back of the stage to take part in “Far from the Madding Crowd”. A plaintive piccolo began among a restless audience, settling down as Bennett’s musical representation of Hardy’s Wessex began to take hold. Horn, violin and percussion all excelled, as did Wilson who found an appropriately solemn conclusion to the ultimately tragic plot.

From there we were led to the Orient Express, and Bennett took front of stage for the concertante piano role. The sweeping brushstrokes of the snare drum linked well as the composer/pianist deftly swung the train into action, though the percussionist’s unusual position in the orchestra made him appear to be sitting on a mobile lawnmower! Rising above everything was the Waltz theme; one of Bennett’s finest.

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